Green Waste or Wasted Green?

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The author’s provocative thoughts and conclusions will undoubtedly bring forth additional (if not contradictory) comment on the current and future operations of this and other landfills. Prairie Fire looks forward to receiving future essays on the subject.

By Matt Pirog

Now that the holidays have passed us by, it’s a good time to talk about all that “stuff” we just accumulated. Once a year, Americans embark on a truly unique cultural experience. On one of our few vacation days, we wake up before the dishes from last night’s dinner are even dry, sneak quietly to the car and drive to the nearest big box retailer where we find hundreds of people huddled outside, waiting to burst through the front doors to cash in on the once-a-year all-out bargain sale extravaganza that is Black Friday. However, Black Friday isn’t the only day we shop during these winter months. The “Consumer Reports” Holiday Shopping poll indicates that Americans intended to spend 15 hours shopping this holiday season, the same amount we intended to spend with family members and at holiday parties.1 To make matters worse, we’re throwing most of our purchases away. Annie Leonard in “The Story of Stuff” indicates that six months after their date of sale, only 1 percent of the materials we purchased are still in use in North America. We’re tossing out 99 percent of the materials we buy! According to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Lancaster County, Neb., residents toss out about 6.2 pounds of stuff daily, 2 pounds more than the national average. This adds up to over 523 million pounds a year.2 It’s dumped at the Bluff Road Landfill, north of Lincoln, but just what is all this stuff and why are we just throwing it away?

Nebraska DEQ Waste Stream ChartFor fiscal year 2008–2009, the Nebraska DEQ breaks it down like this: 51 percent paper fiber, 20 percent plastic, 3 percent glass, 3 percent metals, 16 percent food, 5 percent other and 2 percent yard waste.3 That means that two-thirds of our waste stream is organic material, that is, material that once came from a living organism and is capable of natural decay. Under landfill conditions, much of the organic material undergoes anaerobic decomposition (without oxygen). This type of decomposition produces an aggregate gas, 50 percent of which is methane. Without gas capture facilities for the emissions, the methane escapes into the atmosphere where it is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2, making it a powerful climate-change-causing greenhouse gas. Landfills are the second leading source for methane emissions in the United States, making up 23 percent of the total. The EPA is requiring landfills to capture this gas and at the very least burn it off so that the methane is not released, however pioneering landfill managers are taking it a step further and mitigating the harmful emissions by using the methane gas to create electricity, liquefied natural gas or heat sources.

According to the EPA there are currently 541 landfill-gas-to-energy projects operating in the United States, with enough capacity to power about 800,000 homes. What’s more, they say there are potential sites that could double that number.4 One of the most recent projects is taking place right under our noses. The City of Lincoln recently began a landfill gas project at the Bluff Road Landfill that they believe has the potential to generate enough electricity for around 2,250 households. The city intends to harvest the gas and sell the electricity to companies, hoping to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. However, during phase one of the project, set to be completed sometime in February 2011, the gas is being compressed and burned off in order to comply with federal emissions standards.5 With this potential energy store sitting right under our feet, it seems like a no brainer that this type of energy would be an added weapon in the battle to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and move to a cleaner energy future. However, as with most seemingly simple implementations of “green” energy, there are some very important shortfalls that should be noted regarding this technology before landfill managers begin altering landfill practices in order to increase methane production.

The first and most obvious problem is the composition of the landfill gas. Only 40–60 percent of the gas is methane. The remaining percentage is mostly CO2, but it also contains hundreds of toxic contaminants like mercury, benzene, toluene and many more. Although these gases make up less than 1 percent by weight of the gas, they are extremely hazardous and dangerous to residents living near the landfill. Because of these additional components, the burning of landfill gas creates more pollution per kilowatt hour than burning natural gas.6 Obviously, filtering out the different components of the gas is expensive and is not done before combustion. As a result, it can be inferred that the burning of many of the chlorinated compounds in the gas leads to the creation of dioxins, the most toxic chemical known to science. The question we should be asking ourselves at this point is what are the alternatives? Surely there must be an alternative to this toxic combination of all our “wastes.” Indeed there is, and the solution is not nearly as complicated as one might expect.

The methane emissions from landfills are a result of the decomposition of organic materials in the landfill environment, which lacks oxygen (due to the frequent compacting to conserve space); and organic materials make up about two-thirds of the waste entering Bluff Road. What would happen to these materials in the presence of oxygen? The answer is no secret; given the right environment, this organic matter decomposes and can be used to create a valuable horticultural product that adds fertility to our land and keeps nutrients cycling between animals, plants and soil. Considering that healthy soil around the world is being eroded 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished,7 we should be jumping at the opportunity to recycle some of our organic material and return it to the soil. If we could keep our organic materials separate from all our other trash and compost them, we would reduce the waste stream going into Bluff Road by nearly 70 percent! Furthermore, another 26 percent of the waste stream is reusable or recyclable like glass, metals and plastic. Imagine not having to spend millions of taxpayer dollars every year operating the largest manmade structure in Lancaster County where we shamefully pile all of our “stuff.” Instead, by applying the time-tested principles of composting, we can drastically reduce the amount of waste currently entering our landfills, which is good for citizen pocketbooks and even better for the environment.

Since the landfill has been a staple of the waste management industry for years, we should take advantage of the already-stored waste decomposing and use that gas to create electricity, but landfills should take measures to separate the different components of the landfill gas so as to not harm the residents living near the landfill. More importantly, municipalities should temper our excitement about this seemingly “green” energy and continue looking instead for ways to reduce what we send to the landfill by disallowing the landfilling of all organic wastes. In addition there would likely need to be a civic education campaign to help inform citizens about the benefits of composting and tax incentives to promote this behavior. These kinds of policies could persuade citizens to establish their own composting piles or encourage budding entrepreneurs to step in and collect citizen organics to make a value-added, marketable product. With this approach we can create truly green jobs, reduce our dependence on unsustainable landfill practices and leave a healthy, livable environment for our children and grandchildren.

References

1. “Consumer Reports” Money Blog, “Americans Spend 42 Hours Each on Holiday Shopping and Partying,” Consumer Reports, http://blogs.consumerreports.org/money/2010/11/time-spent-holiday-shopping-poll.html.

2.. City of Lincoln Recycling and Solid Waste Operations, “Facts about the Bluff Road Landfill,” City of Lincoln, http://lincoln.ne.gov/city/pworks/waste/sldwaste/landfill/bluffrd/bluffact.htm.

3.. Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, “State of Nebraska Waste Characterization Study, March 9, 2009,” State of Nebraska, http://lincoln.ne.gov/city/pworks/waste/sldwaste/landfill/what/.

4.. Environmental Protection Agency Landfill Methane Outreach Program, “Energy Projects and Candidate Landfills,” Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/lmop/projects-candidates/index.html.

5.. Algis J. Laukaitis, “Lincoln to Begin Mining Methane from Landfill,” Lincoln Journal Star (Nov. 4, 2010), http://journalstar.com/mobile/article_6d5b6a34-e86f-11df-ae58-001cc4c002e0.html.

6.. Environmental Protection Agency Document, “Methodologies for Quantifying Pollution Prevention Benefits from Landfill Gas Control and Utilization, #600SR95089,” Environmental Protection Agency, http://nepis.epa.gov (search for keywords to find document).

7.. Susan S. Lang, “’Slow, Insidious’ Soil Erosion Threatens Human Health and Welfare as Well as the Environment, Cornell Study Asserts,” Cornel Chronicle Online (March 20, 2006), http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/march06/soil.erosion.threat.ssl.html.

[Ed: For the curious, vermicomposting is composting with worms—which is not nearly as disconcerting as it sounds. For information on how (and why) to begin vermicomposting, visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Lancaster County Extension website, http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/vermicompost107.shtml or http://home.howstuffworks.com/vermicomposting.htm.]

 

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